It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of the universe is riding on Justice League. Well, the future of DC’s Extended Universe. The first full-strength outing for DC’s assorted supers takes small steps in the right direction following the gloom and doom(sday) of Batman v Superman, but it’s another major misfire for the DCEU; one that makes Wonder Woman’s sensational solo outing look increasingly like an anomaly.
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Billed as ‘A Zack Snyder film’ in the opening titles, despite extensive, widely publicised reshoots overseen by Joss Whedon, Justice League is a film at odds with itself. While the action features Snyder’s visual hallmarks – muscular slow-mo, comic panel framing – Whedon’s fingerprints are all over the dialogue (he gets a co-screenplay credit). Throughout Justice League does its utmost to convince you that ‘the DCEU is totally fun now!’ – most notably through Barry Allen’s vexing tendency to converse entirely in quips – but the humour falls flat throughout.
The story is similarly two dimensional. Set several months after the ‘death’ of Henry Cavill’s Kryptonian, Superman’s absence has opened the door for alien invasion, with a trio of ‘mother boxes’ (aka, MacGuffin Boxes) beckoning big bad Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), and his army of fear-sapping Parademons to earth. In response Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) set about assembling a League of metahumans to stop Darkseid’s right hand man before he can turn the world into a wasteland.
Tellingly, the film’s two best sequences both showcase the citizens of Themyscira. In the first Wonders makes an explosive entrance by putting those bracelets to dazzling use, while a dynamic battle between Steppenwolf and the Amazonians is filled with exactly the kind of awe-inspiring acrobatics and selfless acts of heroism that made Patty Jenkins’ box office smash such a stirring experience.
Immediately after the film nosedives. Pre-release reports claimed the Justice League’s trim two hour runtime was a directive from the top. And there’s an inescapable sense that the film is in a Flash-like rush to bring the band together, constantly tripping over its own feet in the process. Un-engaging from the off, the plot never convinces as anything more than a bridge between underwhelming, CG-laden action sequences.
While every member of the League has been glimpsed before, it’s here that we get our first substantial helping of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ezra Miller’s Flash and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. Momoa’s glacier-cool protector of the oceans makes a solid if unspectacular first impression – providing cautious hope for his December 2018 solo movie. Miller’s Flash is the comic relief, but his self-deprecating wisecracks feel completely out of step with the rest of the world and its inhabitants. Cyborg meanwhile is several microchips short of a circuit board, offering little reason to invest in the mopey roboman’s plight.
Wonder Woman can always be relied on to pick up the slack – Gadot exactly as endearing as you remember, even if the fish out of water aspect of her solo movie is sorely missed here. As for Batman, Justice League’s lighter Dark Knight is a step backwards. Dialling down the intensity of BvS, he’s a much blander Bats than before, while Affleck appears to have mentally checked out of the role already.
The film also fails to create a credible threat for the League, Steppenwolf the DC equivalent of Marvel’s much-maligned Malekith The Accursed. A pasty-skinned, “obnoxiously tall” armoured potato with a face that seems oddly inarticulate, his master plan is a straight copy and paste of Zod’s World Engine in Man of Steel. Ciarán Hinds provides suitably sinister and sonorous voice work, but the character is so forgettable he fades from memory while still swinging an axe in front of your eyes.
But what of Henry Cavill’s Kal-El? It’s no spoiler to say that Superman returns, yet his miraculous comeback results in no emotional payoff, and little more than a CG double punching a bunch of pixels in a fashion you’ve already seen a hundred times before. And though the idea of Henry Cavill’s Mission: Impossible 6 moustache having to be removed in post was the source of much amusement pre-release, moustache-gate has dire consequences here – it’s comically easy to spot the (clearly extensive) reshoots because Superman’s mouth plunges into the darkest recesses of uncanny valley whenever his face gets a digital wet shave.
Justice League’s most significant shortcoming is how forgettable it all is. There’s barely a moment that sticks, not a single sequence to rival the standout superhero set-pieces of recent years. Say what you will about Batman v Superman, but at least it had ambition and vision. Justice League is a superhero movie made to a familiar recipe. Competently assembled and largely coherent, sure, but it’s dispiriting to see DC so transparently chasing Marvel’s tail now. The universe is looking more precarious by the day.